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A Filipino on an all-American road trip |

Travel and Tourism

A Filipino on an all-American road trip

UNWRITTEN - Maria Jorica B. Pamintuan -

The journey of a thousand miles begins at five in the morning. The sun was not up yet, and neither were the natives. Liars, I thought to myself. New York City does sleep after all. 

The orange glow of the streetlights and the tiny incandescent light on the porch illuminated the otherwise dark driveway, where my father and brother were loading suitcases and plastic bags into an old red two-door Chevrolet.

Before the first stirrings of dawn could brighten the sky, I got into the car and attempted to get comfortable in the cramped backseat. My Aunt Alexis squeezed in next to me, while my brother called shotgun, and my dad got behind the wheel. Within minutes, the junker sputtered to life and we were off.

Deserted streets were unusual in the city, as was the eerie quiet. No rap music floated down from apartment windows, no angry car horns disturbed the peaceful Queens neighbourhood. 

Peanut butter from the sandwich I was eating (what is a road trip without baon?) stuck to the roof of my mouth. The grape jelly oozing from the sides of the bread was much too sweet, but the sugar in it kept me awake; I needed and wanted to stay alert. The view from my window of the tall buildings in the bleak light would be the last scenes of New York I would see for a long time.

The view from behind: Not very different from the view from the front — just trees, trees, and tollbooths with the occasional Porsche thrown in here and there.

A few minutes later, the buildings receded into the distance, replaced only by the sight of a wide-open highway. Soon after, a toll booth came into view. A $2 toll is not so bad, I thought. Once past the gate, it was all concrete roads again. 

There was really nothing to see, not even cows or other farm animals to break the monotony of tree-lined pavement that is, except for the toll booths. Just moments after paying at the last booth, a new one came up, this time asking a $5 fee. Not long after, yet another toll plaza popped up. 

Several more increasingly expensive payments later, we made it to the New Jersey Turnpike. I heard my dad’s sigh of relief, and took it to mean that there wouldn’t be any more road-use charges for the next hundred miles. 

The three of us my dad, brother, and me were wide awake, often exclaiming over the extravagant cars that passed us by. Porsches, Hummers, BMW convertibles and Mustangs, tore down the highway like the fabled hare overtaking the slow-but-steady tortoise. Walang ganyan sa ‘Pinas! (There’s nothing like this in the Philippines!)

However, speed limits were not merely suggestions on these American interstates. The gas-guzzling road hogs slowed down whenever a Highway Patrol station was near, and wherever speed censors were installed. Clearly, the drivers of those fancy cars were natives who knew exactly when to avoid calling attention to themselves. 

Similarly, the New York native seated next to me, my Aunt Alexis, knew all about the sights and sounds of the highway which was why she was deep in sleep. I suppose she’s seen all the cars, tolls and pavements more than enough times to have lost interest already.

The sign does nothing to prepare motorists for the sights (and experience) ahead.

Many cars had the windows down. The air wasn’t too hot, and it wasn’t too smoggy either. It was unusual to see so many people with their windows open, perhaps because this simply isn’t (or cannot be) done in the Philippines. When windows are not shut, it’s a sign that either someone inside the vehicle is smoking, or the air-conditioning is broken. No Filipino in his right mind would keep the windows cracked open when driving on any major highway or city road. 

Another odd thing was the absence of roadside pit stops. Designated rest areas were distanced from the actual highway. These out-of-the-way places provide the only toilets motorists can use while traveling, short of exiting the tollway.

Peeing on trees is frowned upon against the law, actually. So, there really is no choice but to wait for these pit stops to answer the call of nature. Unfortunately, my dad missed the side road leading to the rest area once, and we had to drive miles before reaching the next one. 

Food is another complicated matter. There are vending machines located in most of the pit stops, but they’re vending machines; they don’t provide real food. They are the only sources of (faux) nutrition on the highway. No fast food chains in easily-accessible gas stations, no daredevil street vendors going from car to car, just chips, cookies and soda from a machine that often rejects money and doesn’t give back change.

Signs for fast-food restaurants lined the road, but often, getting to them meant leaving the highway something my father was reluctant to do because returning to it was a greater hassle than the food was worth.

Faced with imminent starvation (I had already eaten all the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches we had packed), I was glad to discover that the trip was almost done. Thank goodness, I thought to myself. The sun was high in the sky, and it was starting to get really warm in the ancient Chevy. My aunt had finally woken up and volunteered to drive a good thing for my dad, not so good for me because it meant my younger but bigger brother needed to move to the tiny backseat. 

So, when my aunt announced that we were finally in Virginia, I nearly cried with relief. Six hours and 299 miles in a cramped car were taking their toll. And then, almost like compensation for the terrible journey, a fantastic sight greeted me as I looked out the window: the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

Portions of the long bridge were underwater so that ships could cross the bay. Vehicles passed through a tunnel built under the Chesapeake Bay. Entering the tunnel was so exciting. It felt like the car had suddenly become a submarine. Eyeing the walls, I kept expecting that the tons of water surrounding the passageway would suddenly break through the concrete and tiles that separated it from me.

“It’s better when a ship passes right as you go under,” my Aunt Alexis said, adding, “You think you’re going to hit it, but then you’re already in the tunnel.”

It occurred to me that a lot of things could have been better, like if the trip in toll fees hadn’t cost double digit dollars. We could have been riding in a bigger SUV with better air-conditioning. I could have been eating a burger from Wendy’s or a roast beef sandwich from Arby’s rather than a deflated bag of potato chips. I wouldn’t have needed to contemplate peeing in a bottle because my dad missed the rest stop side road.

But, as we emerged out of the tunnel and neared Virginia Beach, our destination, I realized that it didn’t really matter that we didn’t travel in luxury. I was a Filipino on an All-American road trip. Considering that there are probably many Americans who can’t say that they’ve driven across their own nation, I’m quite proud and happy for an experience that, while imperfect, will forever be a vivid memory.

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